Robotic dairy technology being tested at USU

Cows feeding inside the barn at USU's Caine Dairy.

WELLSVILLE – Cow No. 2552 knew it was time to be milked.

Without any prompt from a dairy farmer, she got up and walked into the chute. A series of lasers scanned the udder, which was then washed and scrubbed by a brush at the end of a robotic arm. A few short minutes after the milking mechanism attached itself, the gate reopened, the cow was released and another patiently-waiting cow entered.

All took place at Utah State University’s Caine Dairy without a dairy farmer present. According to Dillon Feuz, the Livestock Research Coordinator at USU’s Utah Agriculture Experimental Station, the new robotic technology not only requires less labor, but it could likely result in higher milk production.

“When all the equipment is working properly, basically the barn can be efficient and working with no labor involved,” Feuz said.

Because of the technological advances, Feuz said, the days of the farmer waking daily at 4 a.m. and milking the entire herd only to return in the afternoon and do it again may be soon over.

“They are talking about that next generation is not willing to commit to that lifestyle,” he said. “They’d like to continue in farming, they’d like to continue in dairy, but they like the idea of being able to take a vacation or at least get away to watch their child’s soccer game or whatever it is in the afternoon. Well some of this new technology can basically free that up.”

The school-run dairy, less than 10 miles from campus, is not just a teaching facility, but a place where research is conducted that can be shared with dairy farmers throughout the Intermountain West. That is why the newly-installed robotic technology has been implemented, so local farmers can be informed how cost-effective it is.

“We’re kind of enthused to be at the forefront of studying these issues and providing the unbiased research,” Feuz said.

The automated milking machine isn’t the only technology being tested. There is a big rotating brush attached to the barn ceiling – similar in appearance to what you’d expect to see at an automatic car wash – that the cows can stand under and use as a massager. Then, every hour, a robot that looks like an oversized Roomba vacuum pushes the feed within reaching distance of the cows. There is also special bedding and large fans in the enclosed barn that keeps the animals cool and relaxed.

“It’s designed with cow comfort in mind,” Feuz said of the barn. “We want to try to document what some of those cow comfort items do add to productivity. Obviously if we find that production doesn’t change, we would recommend that the producers don’t invest.”

Each cow is tagged with a chip that tracks the milk production. A sudden decrease in production will notify the farmer through automated calls or text messages that something may be wrong with the animal.

The cows are incentivized to frequently return to the milkers. For each visit, the machine dispenses nutritious pellets. The more milk produced, the more pellets the cow receives. Due to labor costs, Feuz said, many small dairies are limited with how often cows can be milked. The robotic technology could change that and make it an attractive investment.

“Some of the larger dairies are milking around the clock but they have multiple labor crews that are coming in and milking,” he said. “That’s not feasible for the smaller ones. What robotics show is that the average cow is coming in probably two-and-a-half, three times a day to be milked. That varies throughout their milking cycle, but it allows that small herd to capture some of those efficiencies. A cow actually will produce a little more milk if they are milked regularly, especially early in the lactation.”

Feuz said a machine that automatically cleans the barn floor will be introduced to the Caine Dairy in October.

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